Wednesday, May 03, 2006

An Innocent Man Executed

One of the great what if's in modern U.S. society is what if we via the death penalty execute an innocent person. Well, the time may have come.

"Four of the nation's top arson experts have concluded that the state of Texas
executed a man in 2004 based on scientifically invalid evidence, and on Tuesday
they called for an official reinvestigation of the case."


I am not a supporter of the death penalty. Not for any high moral reasons but for cold calculated practicality.

I have always been amazed that in my experience death penalty advocates are the same people who barely trust the government to keep traffic lights working. Yet, they trust this same ineffecient, error prone institution to kill its own citizens with 100% certainty of guilt.

There is simply no logic here.

If the investigation of the Texas case does prove that we have killed an innocent man, as a nation we must search deeply in our souls.

Joe Weedon of The Middle Of D.C. has personal experience in these matters and I encourage to follow the links to his previous postings on the death penalty.

13 comments:

Sara said...

This isn't the first time it has appeared likely that an innocent person has been executed. God how I wish it was.

Link

Another link

I've gotta plug the Innocence Project again. Those people do amazing work, and they're often the only hope the wrongfully convicted have.

Richard Campbell said...

"If the investigation of the Texas case does prove that we have killed an innocent man, as a nation we must search deeply in our souls."

Why? We know 100% the police have killed innocents in the past (Diallo, anyone?), but I can't remember hearing anyone seriously propose taking away their guns.

To put it another way, why does the difference between "we have almost certainly executed innocents" and "here's one we can prove" matter to you?

griftdrift said...

I think the difference is most police "accidental" killings fall under the category of heat of the moment.

Captial Punishment is cold, calculating, take place over an extended time with supposed safe guard.

Besides, we can punish indivdual policemen if they do wrong. Exactly how do we punish all of society?

Richard Campbell said...

"Exactly how do we punish all of society?"

This way.

(to state it slightly differently: in a Sartrean fashion).

Sara said...

I agree in only one sense...I don't think this case necessarily changes much, because those who have studied the problems with our criminal justice system have been well aware for a long time that it was very likely we had executed innocent people. And, those who are ardent believers in capital punishment will often tell you they DON'T CARE if innocent people are executed, they still want their bloodlust revenge for every horrible murder they hear about.

So in a sad sense, proof of actual innocence in this case probably won't change anyone's mind. The people who believe in the death penalty by and large are willing to accept all of the unfairness and inequity that goes with it. They don't really care if some states give indigent capital defendants a ridiculously paltry sum for their defense and appeal. They don't care if court appointed lawyers sleep in court and don't cross examine a single witness. They don't care if DNA testing could prove a person's innocence if only they could pay for it. They don't care that there is an avalanche of evidence that eyewitness identifications are notoriously unreliable and yet juries place undue weight upon them. To those people, it all boils down to not being able to envision a scenario in which they might be falsely accused, convicted, and executed for something they did not do. They presume they don't hang out with criminals, they don't steal, they have enough money to afford a lawyer, they have family who would back them up and give them an alibi, etc. And as long as *they* could never be affected by the inequities and abuses, the system works just fine.

Richard Campbell said...

"those who are ardent believers in capital punishment will often tell you they DON'T CARE if innocent people are executed"

I'm a lukewarm believer in capital punishment, and I'll tell you I don't care if innocent people are executed, as long as the state had a reasonable belief that they were guilty (like, say, a trial by a jury of their peers upheld on appeal).

I have 3 reasons:
1) I think it's worse for the state to hold people in our prisons under inhumane conditions than to execute them.
2) I don't think any person should ever be in a position where the state has no additional legal sanction they can levy, but if you're already doing life without parole in a state without the death penalty , there you are.
3) I see capital punishment as the state's right of self-defense. I am willing to accept reasonable error when individuals defend themselves with deadly force, and so are people generally (presumably, anyway, since reasonable belief is our standard). As a result, I am willing to give the state the same benefit of the doubt where they acted with reasonable belief they were executing a murderer or other heinous criminal.

griftdrift said...

I love it when angry lawyers fight.

Carry on.

Sara said...

Well the automatic responses would be:

1) Nothing in our constitution says states have a right to run inhumane prisons. The prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment should mean something, and plenty of prisoner's lawsuits and prisoner's rights groups are attempting to make it mean something. Still, I doubt that most lifers would say "this prison sucks so bad I wish they would just give me lethal injection instead."

2) If a person is sentenced to die and is on death row, what additional sanction can be levied then? You can't kill them twice or give them additional death sentences...anyone who's been sentenced to death once won't give a flying you-know-what about the possibility of additional death sentences. Plus if you're going to use that argument, then you could conceivably justify torture as an additional penalty the state should have in its arsenal. Do you?

and finally...

3) you cannot equate premeditated, slow, methodical and not at all speedy capital punishment to either self-defense or an accidental shooting. In both of those instances, we ask that the killing be reasonable because it's an impulsive quick decision that doesn't allow for a lot of time for examination of other options, due diligence to make sure the verdict is correct, etc. It takes years to execute someone even if they plead guilty and don't pursue numerous appeals...there is no split second decisionmaking at play. There is all the time in the world to make sure that we are not making a mistake. But yet, we still apparently do make mistakes. And I know plenty of people just don't care, but I personally think that if it's the ultimate sanction the state can impose then they should do so with the utmost of care to be sure that it's not making a mistake it won't be able to take back.

Richard Campbell said...

"I doubt that most lifers would say 'this prison sucks so bad I wish they would just give me lethal injection instead.'

From the restoration of the death penalty in California in 1978 to November 2005, more death row inmates killed themselves (12) than were executed (11).

While the numbers are rather small, the suicide rate of 1,571 suicides per 100,000 death row prisoners is somewhat higher than the 10.6 per 100,000 rate of the US general population.

"If a person is sentenced to die and is on death row, what additional sanction can be levied then?"

A damn good point. Waiver of the next appeal? While torture could conceivably be justified under this logic, other considerations (cruel and unusual punishment) seem to bar it. This point may be enough to puncture my current lukewarm support, though. I continue to mull.

"you cannot equate premeditated, slow, methodical and not at all speedy capital punishment to either self-defense or an accidental shooting."

I believe you can. The timeframe may influence the amount of procedure necessary to call something reasonable, but that's all.

"There is all the time in the world to make sure that we are not making a mistake. But yet, we still apparently do make mistakes."

Again, it's not the making a mistake, it's if the mistake was made unreasonably.

Richard Campbell said...

clarification - my death row suicide rate above is based on the California numbers I found from 1978-11/2005.

Richard Campbell said...

"From the restoration of the death penalty in California in 1978 to November 2005, more death row inmates killed themselves (12) than were executed (11)."

After rereading what I wrote above, I concede, and revert from lukewarm support of the death penalty to lukewarm opposition of the death penalty.

If the state can't execute people on death row faster than they kill themselves, and if Carl Isaacs can spend 30 years waiting for execution after admitting to 4 murders as the triggerman and 2 at the scene, I can't see a point in having a death penalty.

And any procedural changes to make things happen faster would introduce more errors into the process, which would drop below what I see as a reasonableness standard (and arguably we're already there from a systematic bias standpoint).

So, I suppose, while maintaining my lukewarm support for the idea of the death penalty, I announce lukewarm opposition to the death penalty as it has been practiced, is now practiced, or ever seems likely to be practiced in the United States.

Sara said...

My computer connection at work went haywire for the rest of the afternoon, but I don't end up having much left to say after I just saw this latest comment.

The "problem" in California is that they have a statutory scheme that guarantees each death row inmate one automatic appeal any time a person is sentenced to death. They have such a serious backlog, just with the one automatic appeal for each convict (ignoring subsequent appeals on further grounds or newly discovered evidence), that when Scott Peterson was executed it was reported that it would take a minimum of 9 years from conviction to execution even if he did not pursue any other appeals...just because that's how long it would take for his automatic appeal to work its way through the court of appeals and the state supreme court.

The AEDPA even drastically reduced the available habeas corpus remedies for death penalty recipients and required them to file their petitions within one year of exhausting their state appeals, and there's still a massive federal backlog too.

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